Ge Gao | The Threepenny Review | Fall 2019 | 15 minutes (3,057 words)
Last summer, I woke up one morning to find my right hand couldn’t grab the doorknob to turn it open. The next thing I knew was that no matter how many times I shook it, it remained numb. Soon, on a hot June night, a furtive pain traveled from my right elbow to my palm, back and forth, through and through, like a fractious child jumping between hopscotch courts with his full body gravity, determined and ferocious.
I am a Chinese woman. Two things I am good at are self-diagnosing and self-preservation. I went to a Chinese massage place the next morning. The lady there told me it was “tennis elbow.” Which seemed funny and unfair to me: I had never played tennis in my life. When I was eighteen and dreamed about my future self wearing a short white tennis skirt, running in a blue court, I signed up for a tennis class—and quit after the first session. My skinny right arm was not capable of holding a 9.4-ounce tennis racquet against a spinning ball. The lady at the massage place first used her arm, then her feet to dissolve the knots on my forearm. A day later, small black and blue bruises on my right arm left a message—there was pain; there was suffering. I consciously wore long sleeves to cover it up, afraid of being misunderstood as a domestic violence victim. But I would roll my sleeve up when I met my friends for coffee. It was show and tell: my pain needed to be noticeable to others as well.
Two weeks later, I went to see a Western doctor at a free clinic. A blonde practitioner named Jessica talked to me for five minutes and concluded it was carpal tunnel syndrome. A week after that, a hand specialist from a university hospital disagreed. He said, as he was handing me a plastic splint, that our nerves could be a funny thing. Give it some time, he explained. Sometimes we don’t know what the pain is or where it comes from until the pain itself reveals its form and scale.
A month later, on a perfect, sunny morning, after having a cup of fenugreek tea (a friend suggested it as a cure for inflammation), taking two ibuprofens (the pills started to hurt my stomach), and stretching my arm and neck for ten minutes (yes, like a pathetic old person doing his morning exercise routine), I took off my splint and tried to sign my name on a piece of paper. My weak, tingling hand could barely hold a cheap ballpoint pen. I panicked, cried, and thought it’d be easier to jump off my apartment building (one of the two popular ways for a Chinese woman to kill herself; the other one is ingesting rat poison).
On that evening, my left index finger typed the words “my right arm hurts so much” into the Google search bar. An article from Men’s Health topped my research results; the title of that article was “6 Things More Painful Than Childbirth.” One of these six things was Complex Regional Pain Syndrome. A female doctor was quoted as saying, “It can be so severe for some people, they can come into a doctor’s office and ask to just amputate their arm.” The paragraph ended with a smirky comment: “Believe it or not, [it] is occasionally the best option for treatment.”
* * *
I did not jump off the Williamsburg Bridge or drown myself in the East River when I took my evening walks along the river parks in lower Manhattan. Every morning I woke up, flipped my body to the left side, and stretched the right arm long and hard, with a childish hope that the pain would suddenly ebb, just like it had arrived in my body, without any warning. Quickly, disappointment became a daily dose I had to swallow. Then anger. Then depression. Pain camped somewhere inside of my muscle, nerves, or bones and decided to take an extensive lavish vacation there. In order to sustain my daily life, I realized, I had to endure the pain the way other people manage their grief. You bargain, you retreat, you accept.
Sometimes I would be gentle. My left index finger would scoop a small chunk of Tiger Balm and slowly spread it over my right arm extensor muscle down to my wrist and then to my palm and finger tips, all five of them. Let its cool feeling take away the tension and, at least for a second, be relieved. I’d use my left arm to hold my right one around my belly, like a new mother patting her precious baby. You’ve suffered, I tried to communicate with the crippled one, I feel you, baby.
I am a Chinese woman. Two things I am good at are self-diagnosing and self-preservation.
But most of the time, even the simplest action became a reminder of my right arm’s disability. I practiced using my left hand to open a door, to insert a key in a lock, to brush my teeth inside out, to hold a fork, to wipe my butt; asked friends to call instead of messaging; skipped the bra and tried not to care if others could see my nipples; let nails grow and grow. I talked to a recorder about some random thoughts in case in the future I wouldn’t remember what happened that day and had no written notes. My air quotes were incomplete. Half of my body went limp.
It was summer. When I walked around with a splint, my arm felt like a boiled potato fresh out of the pot: large, swollen, stupid. But after staying in an air-conditioned room for too long, I started to resent the cold, too. Somehow my perception of cold related to the feeling of pain. My arm shrank to a saggy old carrot left in the fridge for too long. Even I, the owner, hardly had enough empathy to care. There was no perfect temperature in which I could sit, or read, or sleep.
“Get over yourself.” I squinted at the numb hand. “The rest of this body has been through some pretty tough times too. None of them asked for this much attention. Enough!”
It didn’t take long for me to find the irony: my “right” arm wasn’t right at all. Nothing felt right when it was in pain. Tourists on the streets holding their phones to take pictures or look up maps angered me, not only because they blocked my path, but also by displaying a simple act that I could no longer perform—grasp a phone and use it with both hands. Couples holding hands and kissing and fondling on subway platforms irritated my nerves (if I still had working nerves in my right hand). Seeing a CVS plastic bag floating in the air disgusted me the most: who wouldn’t use their perfectly functional hand to throw this dirty bag into an even dirtier trash can?
* * *
My father called and asked about my arm. “It must be the neck,” he said. In my family, the cause of an ailment is often located elsewhere other than where it hurts. A cough might indicate bronchitis or lung-related problems, but sometimes, when you couldn’t stop coughing at night, you might need to reflect on all the crimes your mouth had been capable of committing: the curse words you said to your neighbor; your criticism of Mao, Buddha, and, most often, your own mother.
To conclude the phone call, my father recommended acupuncture. Nerve pinching, he said, can trigger something your body couldn’t decipher yet. So I went to an oriental medicine school in downtown Manhattan. Interns wrote down the date of my last period. Interns paid special attention when I confessed to being constipated. Interns also asked me to stick out my tongue and drew a picture of it on their note pad.
On that evening, my left index finger typed the words ’my right arm hurts so much’ into the Google search bar.
The interns’ supervisor walked in, took my pulse, and said my liver controlled too many emotions. Also, my lungs were too soggy; my kidney wasn’t beating in a steady rhythm, and neither was my heart; shattered thoughts filled up my mind; even my blood was not clean. “Open your heart. Be happy,” he diagnosed.
A few minutes later, I lay on the bed facing down, half naked, the other half inside of a pair of paper pants. One of the interns asked me if I preferred the light out. I mumbled yes. She turned off the light and said she’d come back to check on me in twenty minutes. My body was covered by a paper blanket in the dark. I dared not move. My shoulders, arms, hands, and head were full of needles, like a porcupine. Except calling myself a porcupine was too cute a word.
* * *
Aristotle, in De Anima, draws a parallel between the hand and the soul. “It follows that the soul is analogous to the hand; for as the hand is a tool of tools, so the mind is the form of forms and sense the form of sensible things.”
The hand is a tool for using tools. Without a hand, there is no action, no doing, no writing down a to-do list, no reaching out, no touching. When I watched The Handmaid’s Tale with my friend and saw that in Gilead the punishment for an unfaithful husband was to cut off his right hand (instead of—my assumption—his penis), I asked my friend why. He said the penis was a peripheral problem. It was the hand that made the first temptation, the first seduction, the first touch, and all the rest possible.
When I walked around with a splint, my arm felt like a boiled potato fresh out of the pot: large, swollen, stupid.
Whenever a doctor, a friend, or a stranger in the park asked me what I had done to injure my arm, I immediately replied that I was a writer (or trying to be one): I wrote a lot, I typed too much, I held my pen tightly. I said it as if the pain were a badge of honor. Only in my mind did I worry that they might see through to my secretive, shameful usage of my right hand. I feared that my father might be right, and that the source of my pain came from elsewhere—my previous indulgence of pleasures.
Since my hand had lost most of its grip strength, I had stopped pleasuring myself, or even imagining pleasures. At the beginning of the Republic, Socrates asks Cephalus, a supposedly old wise man, about the experiences of being old. Cephalus quotes from the poet Sophocles: “How are you so far as sex goes, Sophocles? Can you still make love to a woman?”
“Quiet, man,” he replied, “I am very glad to have escaped from all that, like a slave who has escaped from a deranged and savage master.”
Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.
I had just turned twenty-seven years old. I had just run away from a disturbing relationship. But I still wanted things. Aristotle continues the discussion of a soul by pointing out that “within the soul the faculties of knowledge and sensation are potentially these objects, the one what is knowable, the other what is sensible.”
His words explained why my disability of a hand crushed me more than anything. My right hand was the tool for sensations, as well as for recording and clarifying thoughts. The cruelty of not being able to use my right hand was not just about the pain, but the trap of the pain. No release; no writing about it and shaping it into an episode for something larger or sadder than pain itself.
A hand, I concluded, was the soul.
* * *
Towards the end of that summer, an old lady who practiced tai chi saw me wearing a splint and shared her wisdom of cures for a crippled arm and of course, life in general.
“My tai chi teacher told me that your right side of the body is male and your left side is female.”
“Oh, I didn’t know that.”
“So maybe it’s time to think about what your female side of you wants, and you can use that energy.”
Well, you know what my female parts want…
She added, “You know, there is a Harvard professor who was very successful at what she did. But she often felt her life was missing something. She did a career test and it showed that she should be a dog trainer. She really quit her job and became a dog trainer! Maybe you should take that test after your arm is recovered.”
It didn’t take long for me to find the irony: my ’right’ arm wasn’t right at all.
I looked at my right arm to try to squeeze the pain out. An invalid arm, hand, five fingers. I was a young woman who could not give herself pleasure. I was a writer who could not type. I was a person who could no longer hold a knife and cut a piece of chicken to feed a hungry stomach. I had become impotent.
Impotence needs an explanation. Some surveys show that the first question many people ask when their doctor notify them that they have cancer is why, why me, what did I do. As if when we study the causes, we’d find a solution. As if this universe indeed follows the cause-and-effect rule. Impotence, especially, needs an explanation.
I started wondering whether the pain disabled me from writing and creating work, or whether my illness covered up the parts that had already been disabled—that were not capable of producing enough substantial matters in life to satisfy my body and mind. A broken arm could be a visible excuse. It made more sense than a malfunctioning mind. It had gained more sympathy from friends and strangers. too.
* * *
Half a year had passed since that morning when I lost control of my right arm. My days were divided between going to work to earn money and spending it on all sorts of medical experiments: massages, acupuncture, stretch trainings, X-rays, nerve examinations, heating pads, ice pads, pain-killers, herbal teas (actually, bubble teas worked better when I felt frustrated and depressed at night). One of my favorites was electric shock therapy.
A physical therapist would attach my right arm to an electric-shock machine. She would adjust the volume of impulses so I could see how much pain I could handle—the external electric shock pain against the internal muscle and nerve damage. My arm had uncontrollable jerky reactions, weird and terrifying the first few times. Yet soon I started enjoying it like a masochist; the beautiful part was its pattern. After my body learned the rhythm of sharp currents coming and going, stimulating and releasing, I anticipated these waves and made myself elastic. The cycle of pain and pleasure created a full-moon-like euphoria.
Aristotle also talks about pleasure and pain in his framework of virtue ethics. “Virtue is about pleasures and pains,” he writes, for “virtues are concerns with actions and feelings; but every feeling and every action implies pleasure or plain.” In order to be a virtuous person, he adds, with the full awareness that humans of course would recklessly chase after pleasures and avoid any kinds of pain, “among these three conditions, then, two are vices—one of excess, one of deficiency—and one, the mean, is virtue.” A virtuous person would stand at the intermediate spot in every feeling and action. No more, no less.
What is he suggesting here? That those months of excessive pain had made me into a person with a moral deficiency?
Sitting down at a dinner table and restraining my urge to talk about my arm felt like a sacrifice I made for the greater good.
There were some of the things happening in 2018: a death in my family, loss of friendships, days and nights of hunger for not having enough of writing or love, a change of season, the news headlines, and the jokes, the shocks, the fear, and the anger. Yet a dysfunctional hand numbed me against most of these experiences. I lost interests in things and people quickly. Sitting down at a dinner table and restraining my urge to talk about my arm felt like a sacrifice I made for the greater good. Only in the quietest voice in my mind could I allow myself to acknowledge that none of these people’s talking was relevant at all. Later, I would scold myself in a louder voice, saying that fundamentally I was a self-centered, sour, dull invalid.
Such thoughts merely caused more pain. Being able to care was a pleasure.
* * *
A friend of mine is an animation artist, and he told me that most cartoon characters only have one thumb and three fingers for each hand. A human’s hand looks too real and too crowded, he explained.
I was not sure why this particular fact fascinated me. But for months I obsessively studied a hand and wrist diagram. Online, I would search hand surgeons’ bios, look at their headshots, and wonder why these people chose to spend years of practice on hands instead of, say, the heart.
It had been almost a year; the pain was still there. I had to admit that over the year the useless suffering from my right arm galvanized an overbearing amount of self-pity. I would often start sobbing as soon as I sat down with a friend. My crying had its own pace and emotion, its own narrative arc. The ending became tiresome—partly because pain consumed too much energy, partly because I had lost my sense of the meaning of pain.
My animation artist friend once asked me if I grew up knowing what a “booboo” was.
“When you are a kid, you fall down and cry and run to your mom. ‘Mom, I got a booboo.’ Your mom would kiss the part that hurts and make you feel better. Kids are stupid. They just stop crying and really think a kiss would make their booboo go away.”
“That’s cute,” I said. “Chinese parents, at least my parents and grandparents, are more concerned about little kids’ spirit. Or soul, or whatever you call that. They believe that an injury could scare your spirit away. They’d let kids stand at the spot where they had fallen and scoop the air towards the kid. A way to call your spirit back. They think once your spirit is back in one piece, the kid will stop crying.”
“You have a booboo on your arm,” he said.
“I know. And nothing I can do to make it feel better. This booboo is too dark.”
He lifted up my right arm and gave it a gentle kiss. “There. Any better?”
Ge Gao was born and raised in China. A graduate of the MFA writing program at Columbia University, she continues to live and write in New York City, where she’s working on a collection of essays.
This essay originally appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of The Threepenny Review, the venerated print arts quarterly founded in California in 1980 by Wendy Lesser. Our thanks to Ge Gao and the Review for letting us share it with the Longreads community.
Longreads Editor: Aaron Gilbreath